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Dramatic boost for neglected diseases research

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, co-founded by MSF, receives its first major government grant – “and it’s core funding”, the DNDi Director tells RealHealthNews.

(March 06)

Last week the UK ’s Department for International Development made several grants of the order of US$ 5-10 million to product development partnerships (PDPs) including the TB Alliance, the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, co-founded three years ago by Médécins sans Frontières (MSF). Here we talk to the director of DNDi, Bernard Pécoul, about the promise the funding gives to his organization.

RHN: The UK has given the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative a very significant grant, compared to your total budget. How does it compare to the original investment by MSF?

Bernard Pécoul: The original investment was €25 million over five years. DFID’s grant is €9.5 million over three years, from now until the end of 2008.

RHN: So it’s a pretty significant increase.

BP: Exactly, yes. But we are still a very recent initiative, 2003, so we are really in the growth phase. It’s in our business plan that we will increase our annual budget from €5 million on the first year, to €20-25 million after five years. So our estimate for the annual budget in 2006 will be a little bit more that €10 million. DFID will be an important part of that – €3 million – then there’s €5 million from MSF, and we’ll get some more from other sources such as the European Union (EU), some private foundations, plus we are negotiating with some other governments.

RHN: But this is the first major government investment since the beginning.

BP: Yes – except that the EU supported one major project at the beginning for €1.2 million.

RHN: How will you spend this money? You have a plan…

BP: Of course. We have 20 ongoing projects, 10 of them at discovery stage, four at preclinical and six in clinical development. So we won’t have any difficulty to spend the money! It will go to the existing projects, and we are still exploring new projects, developing our portfolio. So we’ll need more money for next year.

RHN: Are DFID focusing on specific projects?

BP: No. DFID has agreed to give core funding to the DNDi portfolio, which is another big advantage. It’s much more comfortable, and much more important for the development of our initiative.

RHN: It represents trust.

BP: Yes.

RHN: How did you win that trust? What was the process by which you won this money?

BP: It was a long process, with the staff and administration of DFID on one side, but we also had a series of political contacts, and I think it’s a combination of the two. We developed a good relationship with the staff, who spent time to understand what DNDi was doing and planning to do. The first meeting was at least two years ago.

RHN: And you did this one-on-one, or small meetings or at conferences…?

BP: It was a combination of briefing of the team, and individual meetings, and a lot of questions – it was a long process but an interesting one.

RHN: Did you learn anything from DFID in the process?

BP: Yes, because they’ve shown an interest in R&D, and they are already supporting other PDPs, and were very keen on trying to understand us and how we differ from the other PDPs. And in the end they showed interest in supporting this new concept a little bit.

RHN: Take TDR (Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases) for example. How do you compare with them?

BP: There are three levels. First is that TDR is part of DNDi, as a permanent observer and a member of the Board of Directors, so they decided at some point to create us; second, we have some collaboration at the project level, so in the portfolio at least five projects have some sort of collaboration with them; and third, I think the big difference is that TDR’s mandate is much broader. DNDi has a mandate to create new drugs for a series of diseases that we select. TDR is involved in lot of other activities, in training, vaccines, diagnosis – and their mandate comes from member states, so they have more the role of a coordination body at the international level.

RHN: Some of the PDPs have had considerable funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Would you be interested in support from them?

BP: Yes, we are in touch with them. But we were lucky enough to start the initiative with the MSF money. So to launch the initiative we used that, so we were not obliged to go to Gates to get started. But now that we are in the process of having many projects and quite an ambitious portfolio, of course we need to diversify the sources of funding. And Gates is one of the sources of funding.

RHN: Do you think they’d offer core funding like DFID or would they be more directive?

BP: Hopefully it will be core funding. Particularly when you talk with large institutions that’s better. Of course when you talk to small private foundations, they are interested in supporting one project in one place for reason x or y.

RHN: Can you give us an update on when your low-cost artesunate combination therapies for malaria, one with amodiaquine for Africa and one with mefloquine for Latin America , will be ready for market?

BP: We can be a bit more precise – I think [we’ll be ready] in the last quarter of the year. We’ve completed all the clinical studies, we are collecting and analysing the data. Registration has started in some countries with amodiaquine, with our partners Sanofi-Aventis. I think it won’t be available all over the word by the end of the year, as the process is too slow, so some countries will have it in November or December, and some others in the first quarter of 2007.

RHN: Which will be the registration authority?

BP: First, the Moroccan authorities, as production will be in Morocco ; but after, the priority will be to register in user countries that have accepted this as first line treatment – so it’s a series of Western and Central African countries.

RHN: So you are not using a Western authority like the US FDA.

BP: Not as a first step. Later on we’ll go to the Western authorities but the priority for us is to have this combination registered in places where the combination will be used. And in parallel we’ll go through WHO pre-qualification, so there’ll be an international assessment of the product.


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